Structure of Cherokee

The house at Cherokee is typical of many early Louisiana plantation homes—a West Indies–type cottage raised more than six feet above ground level. The original structure consisted of four central rooms and a wide porch surrounding the house. The house was elevated as a precaution against floodwaters from the Red River during high-water periods.

Architects have concluded that the original house had galleries all around. Over time, the north side was enclosed for a butler’s pantry, the stranger’s room, another bedroom (which was eventually remodeled into the house’s first indoor bathroom), and a kitchen.

Eighteen square columns of hand-hewn cypress extend from porch level to the eaves. All elements of the skeletal structure—massive sills, floor beams, ceiling beams, and studding—are hand-hewn cypress of gigantic proportions. The house has a hipped roof with no dormers. Portions of the original porches remain—twelve feet wide across the front, on the left side, and across the back.

The floorboards are heart of pine, and the walls are bousillage made of river mud mixed with Spanish moss with a finish of mud and deer hair, reflecting the original construction. The ceilings are 13 feet high with the ceiling beams exposed. The window glazing is original, as are the floors, fireplace mantels, the punkah, and most hardware.

The front porch is 24 feet long by 20 feet wide and has a double entrance, one into the parlor and one into the family bedroom. The doors and windowpanes inside and out are handblown glass. Thirty-six pillars of handmade brick support the building.

Parlor

The parlor was the social center of Cherokee used for more formal occasions. This is one of the four original rooms of the house. The fireplace in the parlor shares a chimney with the room behind it. When the house was purchased in 1972, the wallpaper was removed from the parlor walls, leaving the exposed bousillage. The ceiling is painted in indigo blue as indigo was formerly grown on the property with the beams painted white as shown in historical photographs and described in recollections.

The furnishings in the entire house were either in the home during the Murphy family ownership or were selected by Theodosia based on their provenance or appropriateness to Cherokee. Pieces of interest in the parlor include the mid-19th century upright piano once belonging to the Metoyer family, and the impressive and rare French mahogany secretary and the American Empire-style sofa both dated around 1840.

Portraits hanging in the parlor include Robert Calvert Murphy, his wife Martha Gulley Murphy, and the original mistress of Cherokee, Clarise Sompayrac. A portrait of Annette Airy Sompayrac, Emile Sompayrac’s sister-in-law, painted by Theodore Sidney Moise also hangs in the parlor.

The parlor and dining room are divided by folding doors, which can be closed to make a wall separating the two rooms. Opening the glass-paneled accordion-style doors separating the two rooms affords the opportunity for a larger entertaining space. Architectural historians note that the folding doors are unique in area plantations.

Stranger’s Room

The concept of the stranger’s room was unique to many homes along the Red River during the 1800s. Traveling salesmen and others who moved around in their business dealings were aware that the plantation homes often had a private bedroom that could be entered only from the outside porch. The “strangers” were expected to dine in the house and share the news from their journey.

The stranger’s room at Cherokee was later the U.S. post office for the community of Marston. The certificate still hangs in the room today. According to community elders, the room’s side window was really a shutter-like door so that mail being brought to the post office could be delivered when it was closed. The post office was chartered in 1891 but was closed within the decade. Over the years, a door was cut to allow access to the living room and adjoining bedroom, which has been remodeled to a bathroom.

Interesting furnishings in the stranger’s room include a large pine armoire that is 11 feet tall with square nails and the original buttermilk paint. It is the only known item of furniture that belonged to the Sompayrac family and was sold to Robert Calvert Murphy when he purchased the plantation in 1891. Also of note are the chairs made by nineteenth-century designer Seignouret, the Empire table which opens to hold the French porcelain vase de nuit, and a mahogany serpentine chest with secret panels.

Red Bathroom

Originally a small bedroom, the room was converted to a bathroom in 1972. Of particular interest is the wonderful example of Faux bois on the doors. Faux bois (French for “false wood”) refers to the artistic imitation of wood or wood grain in various media. The doors at Cherokee are original with only minor repairs since the house’s construction. The faux bois door of this room has the Sompayrac family name painted in the groove of the wood.

Pantry Bedroom

This room was originally intended to be a butler’s pantry to store china and silver and to plate food brought in from the outdoor kitchen. Most plantations of the period had a freestanding building for stoves, ovens, and food preparation to avoid the danger of fire in the main house. The prepared food was brought up a stairway from the ground through a trapdoor in the floor to the pantry for plating and serving.

During the renovation, the pantry was converted to a bedroom. A bed now covers the entrance to the hidden stairway. Photographs of Murphy family members are hanging in the room. The furniture was brought to the house by Martha Gulley Murphy in 1891 and has been used in the house continuously since that time.

Kitchen

By the time Robert Calvert Murphy purchased the house in 1891, a section of the back porch surrounding the house had been converted into a kitchen. A large woodburning stove was used for cooking. The kitchen was modernized during the 1972 renovations.

The cypress and pine pie safe is from the colonial period. Made by local craftsmen on the Cane River, it is believed to be the oldest item in the house. The pie safe holds a large collection of Spode china in the Blue Willow design.

Dining Room

The dining room was one of the four original rooms in the house. The original bousillage walls were repaired in the other rooms of the home, but the damage was so severe in the dining room that the decision was made to use a wall covering. The walls are covered with a cotton Chaldean print in indigo blue that is appropriate to the period of Cherokee’s construction. This punkah hanging over the dining table is original to the dining room and made in the blacksmith shop at Cherokee.

Interesting pieces include the mahogany Sheraton-style dining table, the petticoat table, and the French “Wag on the Wall” clock. A portrait of Ambroise Sompayrac painted by Theodore Moise hangs in the dining room.

BugABear Room

This bedroom is called the BugABear room because of the stairway leading to the attic where the friendly ghost is said to live. Interesting furnishings include the Eastlake walnut half-tester bed and chest brought to the house in 1891, a covered wagon chair which folds in thirds, and a rare Victorian wire chair also from the 1800s.

The medical supply case on the wall is original to Cherokee and would have been stocked with medical supplies including treatments and medication for minor injuries or illness.

Murphy Family Bedroom

The large front bedroom is one of the four original rooms at Cherokee. The family used this bedroom for entertaining friends as well as sleeping. There is a fireplace for warmth in winter and cross ventilation from windows on the front and side on warmer days.

This room is mostly furnished with Louisiana pieces from New Orleans. The plantation bed has a roller as an ornamental feature which could be removed to smooth mattresses which were often stuffed with dried corn husks or chicken feathers. The trundle bed is more than two hundred years old. The coffee table flips to become a baby cradle, and the interesting hanging light is equipped with a spring device for lowering the oil lamps for filling and cleaning.

Porches

The original house had porches surrounding the four center rooms. Over time, the porches were filled in with additional rooms. Today, two open sections of the original porch remain: the front porch from the parlor to the side door of the Murphy family bedroom, and the screened back porch between the kitchen and the recently added bathrooms.

The front porch surrounds the parlor and Murphy family bedroom with access to both rooms. Rocking chairs offer a cool place to sit and a wonderful view of the grand live oak alley entrance and surrounding green fields.

The plantation bell, located outside the back porch, was an essential communication tool for the property. The bell was a means of contacting workers in the fields around Cherokee. Research by the National Park Service indicates that bell codes varied among plantations, with each having its own unique ring code.

Attic

Architects touring Cherokee are always astonished when they view the roof support system original to the house. Remarkable here are the 22-foot cross supports, each hand-hewn from a single cypress tree. Notches from the axes are visible. Architectural historians find the style to be unique to houses on the Cane River. The huge attic space is also thought to be the home of the resident ghost—the spirit of Uncle Charlie Fontenot.

The Barn

Architects from the National Park Service with expertise in historical structures have studied the barn, also known as the log crib. There is speculation that it could possibly be the oldest structure on Cane River.

Rather than haul crops to the barn for storage, workers could disassemble the building and move it to the field, where they would store the harvested crop until needed. The construction is square-notched logs and a board-and-batten door with hand-forged nails. Roman numerals hand-notched in each end of a log indicate the stacking order for the barn to be reassembled after a move.

Tenant Cabin

Many plantations in the area had tenant homes on plantation property. A summer 2019 research project was undertaken measuring extant tenant cabins on the Cane River. The one behind Cherokee is one of the best preserved of any documented in the community. The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training in Natchitoches, a program of the National Park Service, hosted the research project.

Live Oak Trees

The Live Oak Society was founded in 1934 by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, the first president of Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). The group promotes the culture, distribution, preservation, and appreciation of the live oak tree, scientifically known as Quercus virginiana. To become a member of the society, a live oak must have a girth (waistline) of 8 feet or greater. 20 Live Oak trees have been registered on the Cherokee property with many qualified as a centenarian which is any tree with a girth over 16 feet.